The 40-year lack of progress in haemodialysis access cannulation


Deborah J Brouwer-Maier is the vascular access marketing manager for Transonic (Ithaca, USA) and a haemodialysis nurse of almost 40 years. Exploring how her experience has shaped her view of cannulation, she outlines its problems and what she argues are long-overdue proposals to remedy them.

In the spring of 2023, I will be celebrating my 40th anniversary as a nephrology nurse. I have focused most of my career on haemodialysis vascular access, including cannulation, which captured my interest during my orientation as a haemodialysis nurse for a large US dialysis provider. The vascular access education and training was on-the-job training with limited theory and skills practice. I learned cannulation with a preceptor showing me how to cannulate several arteriovenous (AV) accesses, before I was then handed the needles and expected to successfully cannulate the subsequent AV accesses. The lack of a proper fake arm for initial cannulation training led to a different training model: individuals requiring haemodialysis. I found this unacceptable, and have worked for years to help innovate cannulation training methods, techniques, and devices to improve the cannulation experience for both dialysis staff and the individuals requiring cannulation of their vascular access to receive haemodialysis.  

There are a number of areas that show promise for yielding this improvement, but need more effort to bring innovation to all individuals requiring haemodialysis. Improved fake arms and simulators to help train staff on cannulation would be an excellent start, as would providing meaningful assessment and feedback on the specific element of their cannulation method to adjust to improve outcomes. This includes elements such as the angle of entry of the needle into the skin and vessel to successfully reach the centre of the target vessel without infiltration. Measurement of the pressure exerted on the needle, and adjustment of the needle angle to advance the needle into the vessel. The simulator devices need to be low-cost to allow utilisation by global dialysis facilities to train new staff as well as ongoing skills assessments to further the capabilities of experienced dialysis staff. Ideally, the simulators could also be utilised to train any individual requiring haemodialysis that wants to learn self-cannulation for in-centre or home haemodialysis. 

We also need standardised cannulation training programme that includes both theory and skills practice. The recent work by the Managing Access by Generating Improvements in Cannulation (MAGIC) group is supported by the UK Kidney Quality Improvement Partnership and can serve as a template for a global training process. The training also needs to expand to any individual that wants to learn self-cannulation.  

Point of Care Ultrasound (POCUS) for cannulation mapping and ultrasound-guided cannulation availability globally for initial and difficult cannulation procedures by dialysis staff are also required. The POCUS allows the cannulator to measure the vessel depth from the skin to determine the proper cannulation angle, selection of the appropriate cannulation sites, improve needle site rotation for the rope ladder cannulation method, and needle advancement without infiltration. The POCUS usability has reached a level that allows any trained cannulator to use the devices for cannulation mapping and with skills training for ultrasound-guided cannulation.   

We need to see advancements in the needle or cannula designs. Safety needles and buttonhole needles have been the two major innovations in the standard metal AV fistula needle design, while plastic cannula utilisation has been standard practice in Japan for many years. More recently, the utilisation of plastic cannulas has spread in Europe. The cost and the training required for staff to adjust to the plastic cannula have limited the adoption. Currently, no device is cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use. This is a promising area that needs more focus by the kidney community for the adoption of an innovative needle design to become the standard of care.  

Cannulation research needs to continue to advance. The various elements of the actual cannulation procedure need more clinical research, including the arterial needle direction (antegrade or retrograde), bevel orientation (up or down), angle of entry based on vessel depth, advancement of the needle, and needle design impacting the cannulation procedure. In addition, studies have investigated general cannulation methods such as area puncture (not to be used but still commonly practised), rope ladder, and buttonhole cannulation. A cannulation simulator could allow for the various elements of cannulation to be documented and then used to analyse the clinical cannulation outcomes of the same cannulator.  

I served on the 1997, 2000, and 2006 National Kidney Foundation (NKF) Kidney Disease Outcomes Quality Initiative (KDOQI) VA Guideline Work Groups, and sadly so many of the questions they raised remain unanswered. Real future improvements in cannulation-related outcomes will require the 2019 KDOQI VA Guideline’s recommended research areas to be properly addressed. I remain optimistic that the kidney community is willing and able to keep improving cannulation with more progress in the next 5–10 years than I have witnessed in my 40 years of nephrology nursing. 

The NKF 2019 KDOQI Guideline recommendations for future research: 

  • Test the safety, efficacy, and impact on health care re- sources and patient outcomes of ultrasound-guided cannulation in busy, operating dialysis units. 
  • Identify best practices for mechanics of cannulation, including needle type and size, angle of insertion, and graduated flow rates. 
  • Test effectiveness of simulation models and other techniques for improving cannulation success, reducing complications and improving patient satisfaction. 
  • Define expert cannulator and determine how such expert cannulators can maintain their expertise and be best used to improve overall cannulation success within a unit and for individual patients. 
  • Identify obstacles to achieving complication-free cannulation and strategies to mitigate such obstacles. 
  • RCTs to assess standard needles versus plastic cannulas in preserving A.V. access patency and reducing complications. 
  • RCTs to assess impact of needle size and pump speed on long-term A.V. access patency. 
  • Assess impact of manual compression versus mechanical clamp use after needle withdrawal on access patency/ stenosis (A.V. access flow dysfunction). 
  • Evaluate outcomes associated with alternative cannulation devices. 
  • Evaluate the safety, efficacy, and patient satisfaction with using plastic cannulas. 


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